An English farm: an exclusive look at John Lewis-Stempel’s new work in progress

Woodston hop farm is where nature writer John Lewis-Stempel's grandfather was farm manager, and his mother and her sisters grew up. It's a typical English farm, and now John is writing its biography, from the beginning of time. Read on for an exclusive excerpt from the manuscript.

Sheep in Shropshire, England

This place has numbers, as well as letters. The coordinates of Woodston are 52° 19′ 2.12″ N, 2° 28′ 39.43″ W. That is its location on the globe, and location in the life of a farm makes for three inescapable inheritances: geology, climate, angle of relationship to the sun. The waxing and waning of the moon have influence, too; the stars, unlike the navigational aid they provide to those at sea, have none, except to charm the scene.

In the beginning there was nothing here. Only void. The ancients believed in four Elements - Air, Fire, Water and Earth - and while we might sneer at their science, the physical early history of Woodston is exactly a story of these things. From the nothing of the void came, via the ‘Big Bang’ of 13.5 billion years ago, the gaseous cloud (Air), which reduced to a burning ball (Fire), to something solid (Earth). Order out of chaos. By 600 million years ago, there was terra firma in the place that one day would be called Woodston. After Fire and Earth, then came Water. Life in its earliest forms appeared 3.8 billion years ago, complex life 570 million years ago; it slowly evolved in the warm Ordovician and Silurian seas which covered Woodston then; relics of those primeval seas are the Silurian coral reefs and fossil trilobites at nearby Ludlow.

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The waxing and waning of the moon have influence, too; the stars, unlike the navigational aid they provide to those at sea, have none, except to charm the scene.

Each succeeding geological epoch laid down sedimentary rocks, each layer a stony-soily epitaph to that epoch. We think about history coming down to us; but creation, generally, builds upwards, layer on layer. A land building upwards. After the coming of life, these geological eras had one common characteristic: they were necropoli of dead fauna and flora. The rocks and soil beneath us at Woodston are boneyards. Or, in the prosaic language of farming, fertilizer. This earth, this soil-food at Woodston, is neither strongly acidic nor alkaline, with a pH of 4.0 to 5.4, though edging towards acid, meaning it will support acid-longing plants such as sorrel, sucked by farmworkers to slake their thirst when a-haying.

Only on paper are geological sequences smooth. The land we call Britain, as it drifted around the globe, spasmed in fractures, folds and faults. Around 400 million years ago a clash of tectonic plates threw up giant mountains around Woodston. A bird flying over Woodston today can see their eroded stumps in the Malverns, Clee Hill and, in the far dramatic distance to the west, the Black Mountains of the Welsh border.

This piece is an extract from a work in progress by John Lewis-Stempel. His latest book, Still Water: The Deep Life of the Pond is out in hardback in March 2019.

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